World·Analysis

Why the spectre of Brexit leaves European Union leaders frozen in fear: Don Murray

Business has more or less ground to a halt in the offices of the European Union in Brussels, as the fear of Britons voting later this month to leave the EU looms large, Don Murray writes.

Poll showed majorities in every EU country surveyed critical of how it handled refugee crisis

Business at the EU offices in Brussels has now pretty much stalled ahead of Britain's referendum later this month on whether to leave the union. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Meanwhile, in Brussels — silence. Not so much the silence of the lambs as the silence of the lost.

Business has more or less ground to a halt in the offices of the European Union. The great beast is paralyzed, frozen in fear.

And almost totally silent. That's because they've been told to shut up, not by the Brexiteers, those in Britain who want out of the EU, but by those — led by British Prime Minister David Cameron — who want to stay.

Words of encouragement or words of warning from EU leaders, any words at all, are considered too toxic by their so-called British allies.

British Prime Minister David Cameron doesn't want to hear any words of encouragement or warning from EU leaders ahead of this month's vote by Britons on whether to stay in the union. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

That's not the only reason the EU leaders look lost. The fear of Brexit has been compounded by a poll, not in Britain but in the rest of Europe. 

The Pew poll of people in 10 of the 28 countries representing 80 per cent of  the EU population, including Britain, showed only 51 per cent had a favourable view of the EU. Not surprisingly, the Greeks, after a series of austerity diktats from Germany and the EU, had the most negative opinion. Seventy-one per cent of them view the Brussels beast unfavorably.

Only 44 per cent of Britons said they like the EU. But what must have really shocked the bosses in Brussels is the French reaction. Sixty-one per cent of them have a negative opinion. And the French, along with the Germans, are the founders and motors of the EU.

Half-forgotten dream

Most worrying of all is the news that the favourability rating of the EU has dropped almost 10 per cent in just a year.  The days when the EU leaders saw themselves building an edifice to rival the U.S.A. seem a half-forgotten dream.

In Brussels, mouths are kept shut. But, as referendum day on June 23 approaches and the spectre of Brexit grows larger, others cannot help themselves. Germany's chief enforcer, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble — he's the man who held the austerity gun to the Greeks' heads — pulled out his gun again.

"In is in," he said. "Out is out." 

Former London mayor Boris Johnson is a firm backer of Brexit, where Britain would leave the European Union, despite an uncertain economic result. (Reuters)

Very succinct. So much for the pipedream scenario floated by leading Brexiteers like Boris Johnson — just after he suggested that, like Hitler, the EU leaders want a Europe under central control — that Britain could quickly negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU if it voted to leave.

Then the Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, voiced the fear that paralyzes all at EU headquarters. "This might affect other EU states that will say: 'Well, if they can leave, maybe we should have referendums and maybe should also leave.' "

It's not hard to think of the states she's referring to. From Austria to Finland, hard-right parties are on the rise, and one of their main targets is the EU and its policy on refugees. 

That is reflected in the Pew survey, which showed overwhelming majorities in every country surveyed criticizing how the EU handled the refugee crisis.

The anti-EU fury spreads across central Europe but is particularly virulent in Poland. There, the government Law and Justice party is locked in bitter battle with Brussels.

Internal meddling?

At immediate issue is the government's goal of remaking the country's supreme court. At the moment, it simply refuses to recognize the court's rulings. The EU has issued a written warning, saying Poland has not respected its solemn democratic commitments made upon joining the EU.

Law and Justice leaders fire back that the EU is a "super European state" and is meddling in Poland's internal affairs. Their fury with Brussels is echoed by the Hungarian government with its own authoritarian leanings.

The irony is that support for the EU is highest in these countries. Seventy-two per cent view Brussels favourably in Poland, sixty-one per cent in Hungary. It's really not surprising: European money has built or rebuilt highways, hospitals and schools across central Europe in the past dozen years.

Britons will vote in a referendum scheduled for June 23 to decide whether Britain will exit the European Union. (Reuters)

So the Eurosceptic governments must tread carefully, especially Poland's. There are 600,000 Poles living and working in Britain. What would happen to them in the event of a Brexit vote is a headache the government doesn't want to contemplate. And so, like the tribe of the lost in Brussels, it keeps quiet.

In fact, "quiet" is the word to describe the general reaction, in central Europe and beyond, to the Brexit debate.

It's particularly quiet in France. That's perhaps not surprising; France has a lot of other things on its plate — strikes, demonstrations, the European soccer championship, inevitably accompanied by hooliganism and violence and the fear of attacks.

France also has a president, François Hollande, who once told his ministers "nobody cares" about Europe. Well, he does now. But, like the men and women in Brussels, he's keeping quiet about it.

He's had a private meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and his officials have had semi-secret meetings with representatives of other major EU states. These are all about 'Plan B' — what to do if Britain votes to leave.

Push for punishment

Plan B boils down to Schauble's comment — out is out. And the French are pushing to make the British exit as painful as possible.

"Playing down or minimizing the consequences would put Europe at risk," said one senior French official. "The principle of consequences is very important — to protect Europe."

And also to protect France's mainstream political parties. The reason for the push to punish Britain can be found in the Pew survey. Three French respondents in five had a negative view of the EU, and that's directly linked to the rise of the far-right National Front. It now attracts almost 30 per cent of French voters.

One of the main targets of Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader, is the EU. According to her, everything about the EU is dreadful — its currency, the euro, its Schengen open borders policy and its policy on refugees and immigrants. 

But, she says with satisfaction, the EU is a "death star."

"It is in the process of collapsing in on itself."

She wanted to take this message to Britain in the referendum campaign. But her ferocious pronouncements on immigrants were too toxic even for the Brexiteers. She, like the EU leaders in Brussels, was told to stay away and keep quiet during the campaign.

And so the continent waits, mute or almost, on the sidelines. But the signs are that the beast of Brussels will react nastily if Brexit carries the day.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.

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